Learn from the experts

An Interview with Dr. Adam Muller, a Genocide Scholar

What is genocide?   

Muller:  It is difficult to be concise when it comes to defining genocide in Law.  The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) – which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948 – defines genocide as “an attempt to destroy in whole or in part a national, racial, ethnic or religious group.”

While we may think of genocide in terms of a sudden explosion of violence as witnessed in Rwanda, genocide can take place over decades, as has happened in the Americas.

Who coined the word “genocide”?    

Muller: Raphael Lemkin was a Polish Jewish jurist who coined the word.  While readers might assume that Lemkin coined the term in reaction to the Holocaust, he actually created the word in response to the murder of about 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey by the Ottoman Government in 1915.


“Lemkin wondered why the Law lacked an instrument whereby individuals could be held responsible for the destruction of other peoples. Sovereignty was an issue.  Who is going to be able to hold state responsible for criminal actions against its own citizens?

Lemkin first introduced his work on genocide in the 1930s to a largely disinterested response.  It was only after World War II and the Holocaust that the nations of the world enshrined genocide in Law in an effort to make sure that an event like the Holocaust could never happen again.

“Are there other forms of genocide that don’t involve mass killing?

Muller:  One of the tragedies of the Convention on Genocide was that not all of Lemkin’s suggestions were accepted by the framers of the new law.  The destruction of a culture – through forced assimilation, for example, is also a form of genocide.   But various United Nations members – including Canada, the UK and Russia – didn’t want their national expansion or colonial activities to come under scrutiny. 

Why don’t outside powers intervene to stop genocide?

Muller:   Sometimes, as in the case of Rwanda, the event happens very quickly.  The killing went on for just 100 days (before the Tutsi liberation army in exile invaded and conquered the country and put an end to the genocide).  The Americans were still traumatized after a recent unsuccessful intervention in Somalia.  And Canadian General Romeo Dallaire – who commanded a small UN force that was already in the country – wasn’t given the support he needed to try to stop the killing.

 Then there is national self-interest. There is a cost to intervention no matter whether sending in your own military or taking in refugees.  In a democracy, intervention can be a hard sell. 

States are more likely to intervene if the people who are suffering seem to be more like their own citizens.

And finally, while one life lost may be seen as a tragedy, when it is a large group who have been killed, it just becomes a number.

What are the long term effects on survivors of genocide?

 Muller:   Anyone who experiences a catastrophic event is going to be left with intense fears and insecurity. Some Holocaust survivors, for example, overcame their trauma more easily than others. Some received help. Others did not.  Some Holocaust survivors I have worked with say that to allow the legacy of the Holocaust to persist in their lives would grant the Nazis too much power to affect their lives long after the genocide was over.

Some studies show that a life marked by trauma can make relations with surviving family and children more difficult.  Survivors may be afraid to love.  They may always feel insecure.

Children who are raised by parents who have trouble forming relationships and don’t trust anyone can grow up really messed up.   And corrupted lives can be passed on down the generations.

You see it in the survivors of Canada’s Residential school system.  They were brutalized and dehumanized.  They weren’t taught how to be children and become alienated from their own children.  They lost their language and culture and don’t make great parental role models and their children suffer the consequences. 

What gives our lives meaning are our relationships with our family, our ethnic group, our religious community. Take those away and survivors may be left with a radical sense of alienation, which can result in psychological distress, depression and anxiety.  Such people may never feel safe. 

What can people do to prevent genocide?

Muller:   In the study of genocide, it is important to be alert to the kinds of structures that make genocide possible. If we can learn to recognize these structures, we can work to diminish some of the negative effects of those structures.

In Canada, we are remarkably privileged to have among us many survivors of different conflicts and different ethnicities.   We can bring “What are some of the pre-conditions for genocide? 

 Muller: While people affiliate informally in many ways, the potential for genocide comes about when a state defines a group as such - leaving the members of that group vulnerable.  When the members of such a group are vilified as inferior to others, as not as worthwhile as other groups, they face the risk of being subject to violence. Some examples of this were Nazis continually referring to Jews as “vermin” and Hutus in Rwanda  calling Tutsis “cockroaches”.

 Genocide does at times have an orderly build-up to it.  The State purposely exacerbates tension between different groups in situations, as seen in the Holocaust, then takes a succession of steps to isolate the target group leading to a seemingly inevitable outcome.

This is not however what happens in a long drawn out genocide such as the colonial epoch in Canada and elsewhere. of these people into our classrooms to learn about their experiences.  It is important that we talk about genocide, do what we can to prevent it and encourage communication between groups and reconciliation. Related to cultural genocide is colonial genocide, which is the idea that Indigenous peoples have to give up their traditional lifestyles and assimilate to the lifestyles of the “modern” world in order to survive. In colonial times, Indigenous peoples were at a disadvantage when confronted by  technologically-advanced Europeans supremely confident in the rightness and morality of their religion.  A land grab also played a role in the large scale (and ongoing in parts of Central and South America)   murder of Indigenous people in the Americas.  The Europeans wanted land and resources and viewed the Native peoples as an obstacle to be removed.

What motivates people to commit genocide?

 Muller:  It is not necessarily a matter of clear intention - nor even hate.  Most people who are involved in committing genocide are not evil monsters.  Often they are just following orders. Stanley Milgram’s experiment at Yale University in the 1960s in which 500 students were enlisted in a study in which they were ordered to give electric shocks – in ever increasing strengths - to another student they thought was in another room.  (The other student didn’t exist.)  Despite the supposed student pleading to stop, warning about a heart attack and finally falling silent, 65% of the students involved in the experiment continued to jack up the voltage to the highest level there was.

For others, it is a job they are doing and they want to show their superiors that they are doing their job well.  That doesn’t remove their culpability.

Genocide can also be comparable to winding a clock.  Some times, once the killings are underway, genocide takes on a life of its own.

Genocide can also be a function of limited resources and groups fighting for land, energy and food. These disputes may take a military or legal form.  But sometimes people get impatient and see the elimination of the other as the only solution.

And groups such as ISIS can use spiritual reasoning to justify genocide. ISIS is so insecure in its own beliefs that its leaders want to eradicate anyone with differing beliefs.


Excerpt From: Yoladna Papini-Pollock. “Never Again: A Broken Promise.” Infilm Productions Inc., 2016. iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/never-again-a-broken-promise/id1180821600?mt=11

image78